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The Soap Washing Through Saudi Arabia

by JULIAN CLEC'H

The Arab press is full of stories about the Turkish television series Nur, transmitted throughout the Arab world by the Saudi station MBC-4. It should be just one of the soaps washing through Arabic-language satellite channels. But it isn’t. It’s a phenomenon, even a social movement. Women won’t miss what happens to Nur and her husband Muhannad for anything. The series eclipses politics in everyday discussion. According to MBC-4, three or four million of Saudi Arabia’s 28 million people watch it daily.

There’s nothing unusual about the plot. After an accident to his girlfriend Nihal, Muhannad falls into a deep depression. His grandfather decides he should marry Nur, a young country girl whom Muhannad had loved in childhood. There follow the usual soap events: kidnapping, imprisonment, assassination attempts.

So why has this mundane production, which has drawn only small audiences in Turkey since its launch in 2005, proved such a hit in Arab countries? “Al-atf wal romansiyya wa Muhannad” is the answer – emotion, romance and Muhannad. The surprise is Muhannad, Kivant Tatlitug, 24, a male model who can act, the Brad Pitt of the Arab world. He’s blond with blue eyes and tall, and he has a relationship with his “wife” which has captivated women viewers.

Nur, played by Songul Oden, stands for modern, independent, gutsy woman. Together they are an exemplary couple: they communicate, show mutual respect and make concessions. Women interviewed in Arabic magazines all say the same: they’re fascinated by this dream relationship, so far removed from reality.

Muhannad is the perfect husband they all seek. A young Saudi woman told the Washington Post: “The couple express the romantic love we’re missing in our culture. Even though it’s exaggerated, it’s good for men to see this kind of love, even if it’s just on television.” And women have begun to insist that their husbands follow Muhannad’s example. Some men do recognise the challenge. A Yemeni taxi driver, Hamdan, 24 and married, says: “In our society men are superior to women but in the series concessions are made which allow a normal life.” Nur defines how marriage should be approached.

Nurmania, and the infatuation of women for its handsome hero, creates tension in households which the Arab press reports eagerly. It gives a chance to write headlines like “Nur causes tension and divorce throughout the Arab world” and “Muhannad, the man women dream about – a cross-border troublemaker”.

In Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, divorce cases are linked to the series. In Jordan, Nur was put on the agenda of parliament’s education committee in an attempt to define a strategy against “non-Islamic culture”. There is an urban legend that a Saudi woman paying her respects to a family in mourning asked where the TV was so that she would not miss that day’s episode.

The soap’s cast is culturally close to its public. “Names like Maria and Mercedes don’t mean anything to me,” said Dania Nugali, a Saudi teenager, alluding to a Latin-American soap transmitted by MBC. “Watching a Mexican soap is like following a course in Arabic literature. Nur entertains me.”

That’s because the Mexican series was dubbed in classical Arabic but the Turkish soap is dubbed in Syrian dialect. This choice is controversial.

During the 1990s the arrival of Syrian soaps in a market long controlled by Egypt meant smarter and more subtle productions, an improvement on the eternal Egyptian melodrama of love and revenge. Syrian productions made their mark with a series called Bab al-Hara (Neighbourhood Gate), which indirectly contributed to Nur’s triumph. Bab al-Hara’s enthusiastic viewers became used to the Syrian dialect: an intimate relationship was built up between the dialect and viewers in the Arab world: Nur’s burgeoning audience had the pleasure of rediscovering the dialect, shami.

A Turkish soap is obviously closer to Arabs than a Latin American one. Nur centres round a Muslim family living in a Muslim country. It reflects a way of life, and a collection of values and customs that resonate from Istanbul to Sana’a. The importance of family in households where three generations live under one roof, respect for the elderly, arranged marriages – all connect with its public. A shared culture means viewers identify with characters, but conservative critics are infuriated by the secular Turkish culture.

Nur observes Ramadan but shows scenes that shock strict Muslims: actors drinking alcohol or having sex before marriage. This mixture of the familiar and the exotic is what gives Nur its zip and scares the religious authorities. Close cultural ties between Turks and Arabs make viewers question the differences between themselves and the characters.

A young Saudi woman said: “When people see Muslims involved in pre-marital sex or having children outside marriage it’s much more dangerous than when they see westerners doing the same thing.” Islah Jad, a teacher at Bir Zeit University on the Palestinian West Bank, says: “This series shows that there are Muslims who live differently.” So, mullahs spout and fatwas spiral: “unhealthy”, “against the principles and values of Muslim society”, “decadent”.

Others are unhappy for more political reasons. Sameh Asi, a journalist with the Palestinian online news site Al-Watan posted an article “Have Turkish soaps succeeded in improving their country’s image in the Arab world?”

He answers yes, but goes on to invite his Arab nation compatriots to think about Arab-Turkish relations: “If we look into the history of the Ottoman empire we’ll find the reasons why Arab society fell behind culturally and technologically. . . Has this phenomenon really succeeded in changing our view of the Turks and of the crimes committed against our grandparents?”

The series has boosted Turkey as a tourist destination. A Washington Post journalist reports a Turkish diplomat saying that the number of Saudi tourists to Turkey shot up from 40,000 last year to 100,000 this year. The Turkish consulate at Sana’a says: “Several times a day Yemenis come in saying they would like to visit the locations where the episodes were made, and try to see Muhannad too.”

A Sana’a travel agent says: “Only yesterday I arranged a trip for a family to visit Turkey and the soap played a strong part in their choice.” Muhannad’s “home” beside the Bosphorus has been rented by tour operators and turned into a shrine.

With programming leaving nothing to chance, transmissions stopped after the 200th episode at the end of August, just before Ramadan, a season saturated with soaps. These tend to treat social issues humorously, while avoiding the censor’s ire. The latest Arab soaps shown during Ramadan have started to concentrate on feminine issues. Several proposed series, still thought too adventurous, have been postponed. “It was perhaps premature to expect all these ideas to see the light,” blogs Yves Gonzales-Quijano, who teaches modern Arabic literature at the University of Lyon-2. But he predicts that “there will be recognition of the public’s wish for more reality about women in the Arab world by next year’s Ramadan”.

JULIAN CLEC’H holds a diploma from the Institut Français de Géopolitique

Translated by Robert Waterhouse.

This article appears in the October  edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.

 

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